Chajen Dang Yien escaped conflict in South Sudan and spent years away from her family in a Kenyan refugee camp. Now she is aiming for a happy future involving journalism and advocacy – as well as the 800m at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Chajen Dang Yien has always been quick, but she realised that she had a truly remarkable turn of pace while growing up in a refugee camp in Kenya.
I was one of the fastest kids in the camp and I was often being chased by the other children, so I had to get fast,”
“We used to play games and sport at our school, and we competed all the time. I did athletics and volleyball. Eventually, I participated in some competitions and trials, and I did well. I was offered a place at the Tegla Loroupe Peace Centre, and I took it. It has changed my life.”
Chajen, now 19, became a refugee at the age of eight, fleeing war-torn South Sudan. The experience was difficult and what could not be forgotten was being separated from her family.
“I remember the conflict starting, and running away from it,” she said. “But I don’t really know how I got to Kenya. I know I was with a lot of other kids, and separated from my mother. But after a few years in the camp, my mother found me. It was very emotional, being reunited with her. I was 10. I couldn’t believe it, I didn’t know that she was OK.
“But life in the camp was really difficult. We were living with people from Somalia, Ethiopia. Security was not too good and you couldn’t always get to school.”
Her athletic ability, however – Chajen is an 800m prodigy – soon found her a passport to the Peace Centre, which is a base for many talented refugee athletes. “Living here has been great, I really like it,” Chajen said. “It has really changed me as an athlete and a person. I have learned that refugees are just like any other people. I am connected to lots of other nationalities. I have learned to get on with them. I have learned ways that I think I will be able to help my parents. There is a very good spirit here.”
Watching the Refugee Olympic Team at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 fuelled her ambition. “I saw them on TV and thought that they showed the world a lot,” Chajen said. “ They showed that refugees can do anything. They can make an impact.
They showed that if you try something out you can succeed, that nothing can stop you”
Watching them motivated and excited everyone in the centre.”
Chajen is now laser-focused on two goals: qualification for Tokyo 2020 as part of the Refugee Olympic Team, and advocating peace through sport.
“To get to Tokyo would bring a big impact,” she said. “I would feel so great, it would be a very happy moment. It can change my life, it can change my family’s life. I would love to run the 800m there. My training is going well although it has been impacted by COVID-19. We have been mainly training as individuals. But I feel good.
“Advocating peace is very important to me, too. When we are in schools, I like to tell people about myself and try to give them a motivational speech. I tell them to focus on whatever they are doing, and that being in school and learning is a blessing.
Sport can change people’s lives. It can help you in everything that you do in life – in education and after education. It can change lives."
“Bringing sport to women is vital, too. In Africa we used to say that if you educate one woman in a village, you educate the whole village. We can do that in sport.”
Chajen, who loves to read, travel and talk to people, would ultimately like to become a journalist. She has certainly had enough life experience already to give her a fascinating perspective.
“I would say to any refugee, not to fear anything, not to be discouraged by the life that they are in,” she said. “They should keep going, and they can succeed. If you want something, you can achieve it through working hard, and do something big tomorrow.” Starting – hopefully – at Tokyo 2020, Chajen’s future certainly looks packed with promise.